Ciara is taking a crucial step to raise awareness about cervical cancer and the disproportionate rates of advanced-stage diagnoses among Black people. In her new campaign “Cerving Confidence,” she’s encouraging Black folks with cervixes to commit to their gynaecology exams as part of their self-care routines, and emphasising the message that regular screenings make a difference in catching cervical cancer early and saving lives.
“Cervical cancer affects so many, and Black women are twice as likely to die from it than [white] women — even though it’s largely preventable through screening,” the Grammy-award-winning artist tells Refinery29 exclusively. “I want to make sure every Black woman stays on top of their exams and screenings for things like cervical cancer with Pap and HPV testing to ensure a healthier next generation.”
Cervical cancer is a relatively slow-growing cancer, and when it’s caught in its earlier stages it’s highly treatable, Gerardo Colon-Otero, MD an oncologist at Mayo Clinic, tells Refinery29. But the cancer tends to be caught later in Black people than in white people, which is one of the reasons for the disparity in mortality rates.
Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by certain subtypes of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), Dr. Colon-Otero says. About eight out of 10 women will contract HPV at some point in their lives, and in the majority of cases, it goes away on its own, says Edward Jimenez, DO, director of Gynecology Oncology at the Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Hospital—Long Island. Regular OB/GYN screenings, including pelvic exams and smear tests (which some folks may have been more likely to skip in the past year due to COVID-19), can help detect HPV and monitor any cervical cell abnormalities that may be malignant or may turn into malignancies. But Black (and Latinx) people may get these exams less frequently, in part due to issues like limited access to healthcare, Dr. Jimenez says.
That’s why Ciara’s campaign, which she has launched in partnership with The Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) and Hologic’s Project Health Equality, is encouraging women to get consistent HPV and cervical screening tests. Together, these two tests can significantly increase one’s chances of catching the cancer-causing types of HPV early; the HPV test, which is typically recommended for women 30 to 65 in addition to a Pap, is especially important, since it’s more sensitive to precancerous conditions, Dr. Jimenez says.
"HPV can stay undetected in your system for years and because it is often asymptomatic, which means there are no symptoms, so you might not have any idea you have it," adds Jessica Shepherd, OB/GYN. Yet another reason to prioritise regular screenings.
The Cerving Confidence campaign’s website provides people with a checklist of questions they should ask their doctor about at their exams to ensure they’re getting the appropriate screenings. The campaign also aims to destigmatise talking about HPV, cervical cancer, and smear tests; the site features a “photobooth” that lets you put a #CervingConfidence frame around a photo, which you can then share to social media to help raise awareness of the issue. “Next time you’re in a group chat, remind your girlfriends to schedule their exams and get their Pap tests,” Ciara adds in a campaign video.
Fighting this stigma by talking about HPV and screenings in group chats or with your friends in person, as Ciara suggests, can make a bigger impact than you may think. A 2015 research paper in the British Journal of Nursing found that factors that increased the risk of cervical cancer among Black women in the U.K. included fear, embarrassment, shame, and a lack of awareness.
“There is need for more education targeted to minority populations about cervical cancer and the importance of Pap smear for the prevention of cervical cancer, as well as more information on HPV vaccination and its significant role in the prevention of cervical cancer,” Dr. Colon-Otero says. “There is a need to increase the awareness of cervical cancer as a significant and preventable disease.”
For Ciara, who has a three-year-old, Sienna Princess, the campaign is especially personal. “We need to level up our conversations about health and address disparities to create a better health equity for the next generation,” she says in her campaign video. “That’s the world I want to create for my daughter.”